Scapa Flow has been as an important haven for over 1000 years. This stretch of water, very roughly 20km from east to west and 15km from north to south lies, atoll-like, within the shelter of the surrounding Orkney islands. The result is one of the best and largest natural harbours in the world. While the benefits of such a magnificent harbour were first exploited on a large scale by the Vikings, the 20th Century saw it assume huge importance in two world wars.
Until the 19th Century the most obvious threat to the security of the United Kingdom came from France, and the most obvious way to defend against it was to fortify, on land and with ships, the southern and eastern coasts of England. This all changed with the arms race that preceded the First World War. Now the obvious enemy was Germany, and the obvious nautical threat it represented lay much further north. Combine this with a dramatic increase in the size and power of the warships of the day, and the old naval ports in the south were no longer adequate. Scapa Flow, on the other hand, was ideally placed and offered shelter to any number of even the largest warships.
"The Ships of Scapa Flow" by Campbell McCutcheon tells the story, in old photographs and background text, of the ships that used Scapa Flow, from the First World War until its closure as a naval base after World War Two. And a fascinating story it is too. The World War One sinkings of HMS Hampshire and HMS Vanguard are looked at in chapter one. As you would expect, a large part of the book covers the surrender of the ships of the German High Seas Fleet at the end of that war, their subsequent imprisonment in Scapa Flow and their scuttling there in 1919. The salvage effort that followed is beautifully illustrated, in many cases with images from old postcards. The final chapter in the book is also one that had to be here, and tells the story of the sinking of HMS Royal Oak in Scapa Flow with the loss of 833 men and boys in October 1939.
In some ways, though, the most fascinating story to emerge from the book, perhaps because it is so less well known than the other topics covered, is about "the phantom fleets" of merchant ships converted in both world wars to look like battleships. These served as decoys and diversions, many from their base in Scapa Flow.